Writing is different than speaking, and modern society requires it.
Whatever you write, have a passion for it.
Focus on editing for simplicity and removing any amateur writing style.
Keep your audience in mind when writing, and focus on sending a clear message.
All writing is a story:
- Nonfiction stories involve the reader as the main character.
- Fiction stories are driven forward by a well-crafted character.
- Expand your story to clearly express the experience you’re aiming for.
- Use dialogue and action to advance the story.
Improve your text communication with brevity.
Create high-quality web content by adapting to the medium.
Edit many times to make high-quality writing.
Writing is an art, at its core, so most rules can be broken.
How is writing different from speaking?
Writing has more weight than speaking:
- Writers can research and take their time, so everyone expects more intelligent writing than speaking.
- Text doesn’t have articulation or cadence, so implications are more pronounced.
- Speech uses more perception and feeling through the ears and mouth, text uses imagination and logic through the eyes and hands.
- By writing what you understand, it forces you to more clearly indicate information than simply speaking it.
One of the key benefits of writing is that readers can both reread to understand ideas better or skip text entirely:
- Listeners, on the other hand, must chronologically focus on body language and hearing, and can’t easily skip content.
Compared to speaking, writing converts and transmits more easily across a medium and across languages.
Modern society requires writing
Most technological channels are limited and require writing more than talking:
- Writing emails and text messages
- Giving summaries and reports
- Social media
- Most remote feedback and commentary
People read at about 200 words per minute but only talk at about 110-150, so writing permits more information with less time and space.
Writing requires understanding the basics of language (vocabulary, grammar, elements of style), then learning ways to express your feelings and observations:
Writing captures feelings simply, so your word choice shows your passion for the subject:
- If you have feel strongly about something, you’ll have a lot to say.
- When motivated, we focus on getting the words out instead of analyzing our intentions.
- If you’re out of ideas, find a topic that makes you furious.
- Once you’ve learned to write well, your speaking and writing style will harmonize and your thoughts will come clearly.
Writing is communicating information to someone where they forget they’re imagining something simply from a bunch of words.
When writing, you gain a more thorough understanding of what you’re trying to communicate.
Your best writing is the best version of your creative style, not how well you imitate another writer.
Sometimes, though, you might have to write about something you don’t care about:
- If possible, try to change the topic to something that does interest or provoke your opinion.
- If you can’t find anything, find a reliable source and use their references for your creative work.
Edit for simplicity
We understand things proportional to how few words we need to say them:
- Aim for brief, simple sentences.
- Strong, long sentences are simply many short sentences strung together.
- Use commas sparingly, and split up sentences frequently.
- Write like you talk.
- If your writing is particularly awful, try to explain what you wrote to a friend, then throw out what you wrote and write what you said to them.
- Some academic circles find it offensive, but simple writing with a clear point demonstrates expertise.
Edit to simplify, not add:
- Good writing is removing useless information much more than adding.
- We add more information because we fear being misunderstood, which ironically makes our writing unclear.
- The reader should always feel like you know more content than what you’re writing.
- Your clarity will convince, not your logic.
- Your clear expression demonstrates truth, and people can see truth for themselves without persuasion.
- Cross out every sentence you don’t need, and merge sentences together whenever possible.
- Good sentences often hide inside bad ones, so trust your instincts and rewrite as needed.
If you think others might misread you, they will:
- The longer and more sentences, the more readers misunderstand.
- If you can and the style permits it, write only one sentence per line.
- Only use words you know the exact meaning of.
Good writing sounds excellent when read out loud:
- Read out loud as you write, then remove awkward language you’d never actually say.
- Unless you’re trying to be vague or artistic, poetic styling is inappropriate.
- Formalized language gives extra work for the reader, so use easy-to-understand words.
- Harder subjects generally call for very simple words.
- Which of the two is better to read?
- Let your conversational communications possess a clarified conciseness, a compacted comprehensibleness, coalescent consistency, and a concatenated cogency. Eschew all conglomerations of flatulent garrulity, jejune babblement, and asinine affectations. Let your extemporaneous descantings and unpremeditated expatiations have intelligibility and veracious vivacity, without rodomontade or thrasonical bombast. Sedulously avoid all polysyllabic profundity, pompous prolixity, setaceous vacuity, ventriloquial verbosity, and vaniloquent vapidity. Shun double-entendres, prurient jocosity and pestiferous profanity, obscurant or apparent.
- Talk plainly, briefly, naturally, sensibly, truthfully and purely. Keep from slang, don’t put on airs, say what you mean, mean what you say, and don’t use big words.
Write unapologetically: if you feel you must concede something or use a quote for an expression, don’t use it.
Avoid an amateur writing style
If you’re writing publicly, focus on facts more than experiences or feelings.
Show the audience; don’t tell or give an editorial.
Vary up the length of your sentences to stay interesting, even if you’re writing technical documentation.
Avoid fanciful or empty statements:
- A simple idea requires few words.
- Every sentence and word should either advance the action or add relevant information.
- Never use common metaphors, similes or figures of speech.
- Replace long trade-specific, scientific, slang and foreign words with simple ones.
- Cut out excessive adverbs and details that don’t add to the central ideas.
Frequently shift focus by varying sentence structure, type, style, and jumping around inside the story.
Don’t clutter your tone:
- You’re trying to float the reader through the ideas you’re presenting, not fully inform or convince them.
- Influencing them requires that they conclude it themselves, so you’ll either come across as desperate or wordy.
- Adjectives (e.g., “gentle”) and adverbs (e.g., “gently”) often add useless detail, so drop them whenever you feel your writing is bogged-down.
- Match your pronouns across the body of the entire work.
- Use figures of speech that match the style you’re aiming for.
If you use cliché terms, you’re simply borrowing someone else’s phrases, and it’s not your authentic voice.
Keep your punctuation interesting, but accurate:
- Surprise people with varied transitions like colons, dashes, and block quotations.
- Use commas to clearly separate the pacing of a sentence, but don’t cram two sentences together.
- Use apostrophes to indicate ownership, but avoid using them for plural nouns.
Even while writing, maintain a flow:
- Use 2-syllable words whenever you can, and offset 3-syllable words afterward with 1-syllable words.
- Your ideal goal is iambic pentameter, which is 5 sets of 2-syllable words.
Use the active voice:
- The passive voice rearranges nouns to avoid a proper noun, but dilutes words’ impact.
- Passive voice comes across as [EffectNoun] was [Verbed] by [CauseNoun].
- Many iterations of the word “it” capture the passive voice (e.g., “it was nice…”).
- For plural nouns, use “they” or “all” instead of “everybody” (e.g., “everybody was…”).
- The active voice is framed as [CauseNoun][Verbed][EffectNoun].
- Active voice gives power from its clarity and simplicity: “John ate cake.” versus “The cake was eaten by John”.
- Passive voice comes across as [EffectNoun] was [Verbed] by [CauseNoun].
- Writers usually speak in the passive voice from poor understanding or to avoid offending, but it frequently creates confusion.
- To find the passive voice, watch for any awkward pronouns or lots of small words in the sentence.
Don’t misuse words:
- “Less” describes intangible concepts, “fewer” describes numbers.
- “Then” refers to time, “than” shows an alternative.
- “Impact” is a noun, “affect” is to change, “effect” is a consequence.
- “It’s” is the contraction of “it is”, “its” is the possessive of “it”.
- “Alot” is not a word, “a lot” is a large amount, “allot” is to give something.
- “Whom” is only used when the statement can refer to “him”.
- “Into” refers to inside, “in to” has no connection to a location.
- When using “…and me” or “…and I”, pick the one that makes sense without the other one in it (e.g., “John and [I went to the store]”).
- Only use a trade-related word if you fully know what that word means.
Don’t overuse the same words:
- Emphasizing a point with “really” or “very”.
- Using “you” when not referring to the reader.
- Saying “feel” instead of the word that describes the feeling.
- Saying “think” to indicate an opinion (the reader knows it’s an opinion).
- “As”, “just”, “a lot”, and “used to” in most contexts.
- “Sort of” and “kind of”.
- “Like” to show an analogy.
- Using a verb sounds far more fluid than analogies.
Avoid “filler” words:
- Examine every word, since many are surprisingly useless:
- Many make an appearance with appear with is capable of being can be is dedicated to providing provides in the event that if it is imperative that we we must brought about the organization of organized significantly expedite the process of speed up on a daily basis daily for the purpose of to in the matter of about in view of the fact that since owing to the fact that because relating to the subject of regarding with…
- A bit or also a little because it’s sort of kind of rather quite pretty much too very…
- Don’t use vague language, even if you’re afraid of what people may think:
- The reader will misunderstand you, and will probably be offended from their misunderstood idea.
- The reader will decipher what you’re getting at, and then be offended you didn’t state it in simpler terms.
- You’ll bore the reader, and they’ll do something more interesting than your writing.
To magnify the dramatic effect of your language, use a florid or uncommon word in the midst of simpler and smaller words.
Use parallel syntax in each sentence to express patterns:
- e.g., “He reads, eating, and cleaning” versus “He’s reading, eating, and cleaning”.
- e.g., “They went to the park: it was fun. They went to the factory: it wasn’t.”
- e.g., “Stop existing, start living.”
Use concrete imagery more than abstract:
- Generally, vague speaking (such as with philosophy) will tire out the reader because they must hunt to connect that idea to something practical.
- Even intelligent readers who enjoy philosophy are simply using it as a prompt for their imagination.
- By speaking in plain terms and with clear connections, you do most of the work for the reader and motivate them to keep reading through to the end.
- If you’re not sure if you’re being clear enough, liberally use metaphor and simile to bring make ideas tangible.
Great writers think in paragraphs, not sentences:
- Focus on clearly communicating ideas more than sentence size, paragraph length, or page count.
- Size doesn’t matter: one-sentence ideas have brought down entire institutions.
- From paragraph to paragraph, your tone is far more important than size.
- Some sentences don’t need many words, while others are highly elaborate.
- A paragraph is simply a pause for the reader to understand the idea before continuing, and may only need only 1 sentence.
- However, most ideas are small enough that paragraphs should rarely travel past about 5 full sentences.
- The last sentence should end with an entertaining or surprising idea that points to the first sentence of the next paragraph.
- If you can make the reader smile, they’ll read one more paragraph.
- Each new paragraph should amplify the ideas from the last.
- Don’t be afraid to use transitioning words at the beginning: But, Yet, However, Nevertheless, Still, Instead, And, Therefore, Thus.
- If your paragraphs start expanding across too large a set of ideas, break them into multiple paragraphs or remove transitioning sentences.
- When you start adding a digression or side detail to a paragraph, make a new paragraph.
- If you’re expanding on a seemingly unrelated concept, very clearly explain why you’re going there.
- If your idea seems complete but you have another one that follows, break into another chapter or topic.
Have your audience in mind
Write about things other people want to read:
- If people aren’t interested in what you’re writing about, they’ll get bored.
- You may think your writing carries authority, but the reader has more authority because they can stop reading whenever they want.
- Ask who you are to the audience, not who the audience is.
- Anything can be interesting with a sufficiently motivated and talented writer, so your ability to influence and entertain is critical.
- If you don’t understand your audience, you’ll add too much detail and useless information.
Writing should both entertain and educate:
- The reader must learn something or will feel the story was a waste of time.
- The reader must be amused or will find the information boring.
- In modern society, the quantity of your information isn’t as valuable as how you convey it.
Write to please yourself, firstly:
- You’ll never be happy with the results if you’re not writing to your own standards.
- Somehow, readers can tell when you’re writing and not enjoying it.
- You know yourself more than anyone else, and there are thousands of people who have your taste in writing style.
- You may be anxious and uneasy, but your desire to create the best possible form of an idea will chip away useless information.
Write for one person you know personally:
- If you aim for everyone, nobody will like it, but you can often add humor into your style when it’s someone you know.
- That person, when reading your text, should feel like you’re treating them as an equal.
Pay close attention to the reader’s perception throughout the work:
- Readers are only reading for information or experience.
- For information, focus only on the information they want to learn.
- For an experience, focus only on what they’ll find most interesting.
- Find the healthy middle ground between giving the bare minimum information and burying them in endless specifics.
- Focus on all the necessary details that imply many other details.
- Add just enough details to give emotional emphasis.
- If you’ve forgotten to continue with your content, stop and remove some details.
- Don’t jump ahead presuming they already know something.
- The easiest approach is to move through the experience chronologically or systematically.
- You’ll have a harder time moving slowly through the information proportionally to your intelligence or knowledge.
- Give extra attention to things people frequently overlook and presume they understand.
- Rearrange huge chunks to conform to the chronological order that’s easiest for them to understand.
All writing sends a message
The entire work paints a portrait of ideas:
- Everything you’re writing is to solving a problem.
- The first sentence, paragraph, word, and title will define the reader’s expectations throughout the work.
- Each sentence is adding information to the message, and the end will leave the reader with a lingering concept.
- Without a message, a writer is just trying to draw attention to themselves.
- One misplaced word can ruin the entire flow of the story, so build a story from back to front to maintain consistency.
All great messages contain a WHAT and a WHY:
- WHAT communicates the information and events you want to share.
- Event details, date, time, location
- Educational information, data, facts
- WHY communicates the benefits from knowing the information or the cause for the WHAT.
- It gives the reason you’re writing at all.
- It answers the “call to action” the reader must take.
- The rest spins off from these two:
- WHO is the character (or reader) that does WHAT.
- WHERE is the setting for WHAT.
- WHEN is the chronology of WHAT.
- HOW is the detailed set of processes to explain the WHAT and WHY.
Get to the point or start as close to the end as possible:
- Give as much information as soon as possible.
- Use non-knowing, not vagueness, to bring suspense.
- Only give possibilities the reader was expecting and details the reader can identify with.
All writing is either explaining or exploring:
Focus on the positive form of the idea:
- Say “do” instead of “don’t”.
- What something “isn’t” is less informative than what something “is”.
When using examples and anecdotes, carefully consider your quantity:
- 1 demonstrates raw power.
- 2 is useful to compare or contrast.
- 3 gives a sense of completeness, fullness or wholeness.
- 4 or more can list, inventory, compile, and expand.
- In reality, 3 gives a stronger sense of completeness than 4.
Understate the topic when it’s the most serious, and overstate when it’s least.
End the work with the most powerful sentence you can make:
- It should allude to the first sentence, and will linger when they leave your work.
- Emphasize with 2-3-1: the most important emphasis at the end, the second-most at the beginning, and the rest in the middle.
If you’re writing a long body of work, write the introduction last:
- To most clearly articulate it, you should fully understand what you’re introducing.
- If you’re writing a robust work (e.g., large book, technical/scientific paper), a lengthy introduction can help give more context to what you’re writing:
- The history of the subject.
- Giving credit to everyone who helped with it.
- Outlining the content of the document and why you wrote it.
- While you may want to express your most intimate feelings, don’t get too carried away, and omit anything that might be boring.
Don’t neglect the title:
- The title of your work is the first exposure to what you’re building, so use it to draw attention from the people you expect to read it.
- In some ways, the title is telling them there’s more information without giving any details.
Writing is always a story
Even when it’s nonfiction or an email, all written works travel through a story arc with a beginning, middle, and end:
- The first sentence will imply one overarching mystery, which is what the story will answer.
- To be interesting from the first sentence, the reader needs at least a few of the following:
- A paradox
- An unusual idea
- An interesting fact
- A question
- All the future sentences and paragraphs are expanding on that first sentence, wrapping up with the final sentence.
- The events of the story are based on how the character (or reader) experiences a conflict, then changes by making meaningful decisions.
Add clues to imply what will happen before it does (foreshadowing):
- Give details that imply something the reader can potentially figure out before you reveal it.
- When transitioning to the next chapter or major idea, direct attention to a simple mystery (e.g., “And then I saw someone standing where they shouldn’t”, “But, the secret to success isn’t as simple as what I’ve implied”).
Focus less on what the thing is and more on how the subject will help people:
- A nonfiction work is simply a story where the reader is the main character.
You’re writing about 1 thing and its related concepts, so don’t use an outline:
- Organizing a long article is daunting, and an outline might be a procrastination tool.
- Use an outline to organize your idea, but the idea itself should be clear enough in your mind that you can start writing and edit the draft later.
- Structuring an outline implies it’s the only way to structure it, so throw the outline out once you’ve written your first draft.
- Further, modern word processors mean you can rearrange the content all you want, so it’s easier to dive in than ever before in history.
Plain speech is always valuable, but even more when you’re speaking about abstract concepts:
- If a general idea doesn’t evoke a feeling, add an example.
- Whittle down the broad concept until you have so much detail that the experience is a vivid image in your mind.
- If it may illustrate a concept, add an amusing related anecdote if it comes to mind.
- You can always take it out in a future edit.
Always write in the first-person or second-person:
- People need something concrete to attach their experiences to.
- e.g., “One must write well” is harder to process than “You must write well” or “I must write well”.
If they’re from reputable sources, a few well-placed statistics can establish credibility.
Be very precise about quotes, since you could be sued for defamation.
If you’re writing a story about yourself, treat it as a work of fiction with severe constraints:
- Your perception of the past is a set of faded memories, so you won’t be able to portray details accurately.
- Not all documentary writing has the same focus.
- A memoir is capturing specific experiences, but not necessarily a life’s work.
- A biography is tracking the course of someone’s life, and an autobiography is you doing it to yourself.
- As long as you’ve captured the spirit of the events, it’s not a lie.
- Even though you experienced something, it’s probably less exciting in retelling it.
- What you’re writing should be legitimately interesting.
- If you’re more concerned with your legacy than adding value to the reader, don’t expect many people to read it.
If you’re trying to draw attention and details than how the story forms, use the journalists’ Inverted Pyramid:
- Start with the most newsworthy information: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?
- Give important reinforcing details
- Provide other general and background information
If your content is highly technical, demarcate and sequence your concepts as lists:
- Most information can be distilled into lists, and it orders the information more articulately.
- By using lists, you can communicate lots of information without overwhelming the reader.
- The secret to lists is that they permit the reader to skip over them very quickly if they understand the concept already.
To persuade, write practical “what if…?” questions:
- What Is, which is either the present reality or a fictional analogy of it.
- What Should Be, with its difference contrasted to What Is as far as possible.
- Repeat What Is and What Should Be, building tension by swinging between both progressively faster.
- This should build emphasis through a predictable theme.
- One more What Is, then a New Bliss.
- New Bliss is the most accurate message of the story, or What Should Be.
- A New Bliss with enough emotional energy will often change a reader’s life.
- The best New Bliss pulls from the audience’s previous memories and inspirational knowledge.
Every worthwhile fiction story requires building the character first:
- A good character is imagining a person you know, moving some details around, then placing them in a unique situation and watching them make decisions.
- To make the character at all relatable, give at least a few important details for the reader to latch onto.
- Frame the character’s experiences and challenges as the audience sees them, not you as the author.
If you want memorable characters, thoroughly profile them:
- Complete a questionnaire for every main character, and as many secondary characters as you want.
- Fill in as much information as possible, including things that probably don’t matter to the story.
- You’re trying to get to know this character until you can follow them around and watch what they do.
- Most of those details will be boring, and you won’t write about them, but they’re necessary for you to intimately know a character and, as a result, enforce a story’s internal consistency.
Overarching character information:
- Personal details – first name, last name, age
- Write down a summary of the plot in a few sentences.
Describe how your character makes you feel:
- Your feelings for your character, no matter what they are, must be strong.
- Otherwise, keep building out the character or build a new character altogether.
- Very specifically clarify your feelings about them:
Write out their background story in a few sentences:
- What is their role in your story?
- What are their goals?
- What are they motivated by?
- What’s their conflict?
- How will the conflict stop them from reaching their goal?
- What will they do to overcome the conflict?
- How will those problems get worse?
- What will they do to overcome those problems?
- How will they resolve the conflict?
- How will their background influence how they behave in the story?
- What’s their relationship with other characters, if any, in the story?
- Height, eye color
- Hair color, hairstyle, hair length
- Complexion, shape of face
- Body type, weight
- How does their expression change when:
- With a loved one?
- With someone they dislike?
- With their boss?
- With a colleague?
- What’s their overall personality? (e.g., shy, outgoing, insecure, dominant, etc.)?
- Any distinguishing traits?
- Any mental scars like complexes or neuroses?
- What are their ambitions?
- How is their sense of humor?
- What are they afraid of, anxious about, and phobic over?
- How does their personality change when they’re experiencing different emotions?
- How do they act when they feel confident? How about inadequate?
- What gestures do they use when they talk or think?
- How do they walk? With confidence? Do they slouch or stride?
- What mannerisms do they have? (e.g., folding arms, flicking hair, etc.)
- How do they speak? (e.g., clearly, mumble, confidently, drawl, etc.)
- What is their voice like (e.g., rich, loud, soft, etc.)
- What choice of vocabulary do they use? (e.g., casual, formal, illiterate, etc.)
- Do they have any secrets they’ve never told anyone?
- What are their prejudices?
- What is their dominant motive?
- What do they value most?
- What do they desire most?
- Do they have any vices or virtues?
- How do they treat those around them? (e.g, children, superiors, etc.)
- Any friends?
- Any enemies?
- Any acquaintances?
- Have they been engaged or married before?
- Any children?
- Are there any people they avoid?
- What is their attitude to the opposite sex? The same sex?
- Favorite food, color, music, etc.
- Taste in clothing?
- Do they severely like or dislike anything in particular?
- Where do they live? (e.g., country, city)
- What is their dwelling? (e.g., house, apartment, etc.)
- Do they like where they live? Why?
- Does where they live reflect what kind of person they are?
- Do they have a favorite room, piece of furniture, household object, etc.?
- Do they have a car, and what type? Does it reflect who they are?
- Do they have any hobbies?
- What are their personal habits? (e.g., neat, sloppy, etc.)
- Parents’ names, parents’ occupations
- What was their relationship with their parents?
- Any siblings? What were those relationship(s) like?
- What kind of childhood did they have?
- How were their adolescent years?
- What kind of schooling did they undergo? (e.g., private, public, homeschool)
- Has their education shaped who they are?
- What was their highest grade achieved in school?
- What country do they currently live?
- If they live in a different country than where they were born, why do they live there?
- Do they have any cultural traditions? Any traditions they’ve given up?
Current position in life:
- What was their most meaningful experience?
- Have they had any disappointments?
- What is their goal in life?
- What is their attitude about life?
- What kind of job do they currently have?
- What kinds of jobs have they had previously?
- Are they currently content with their employment situation?
- If not, what’s their dream job?
If you want a complex character, evoke different feelings and responses toward each of their layers of self-identity:
- Each person has layers of self-identity, and a character is relatable when they have multiple self-deceptions.
- This aspect alone requires people with significant life experience, but without too much trauma haunting them.
- Use the story to expose and strip away the false layers, one by one, to bring out the true personality of that character.
Understanding how stories work is absolutely vital to building one.
People always begin reading with at least some expectations:
- There are 3 burning questions readers want to know as soon as possible:
- Who’s the main character (protagonist)?
- That character is the center of the story, so introduce that character as soon as possible (preferably in the first paragraph).
- What’s happening here?
- They’re trying to figure out where things are relative to the events in the world you’re building.
- What’s at stake?
- They want to know why they should care what happens.
- It’s always a conflict within the protagonist.
- Who’s the main character (protagonist)?
- Expert writers can pile the answers to all 3 questions into the first sentence of the story.
- A story will start straying without all the critical information:
Unless you plan to write something really long and drawn-out, don’t use a prologue.
Every story revolves around a character’s conflict:
- Only a few major types of conflicts arise in good stories:
- The protagonist’s belief vs. actual truth
- The protagonist’s desire vs. what the protagonist has
- The protagonist’s desire vs. others’ expectations
- The protagonist vs. themselves
- The protagonist’s inner goal vs. the protagonist’s external goal
- The protagonist’s fear vs. the protagonist goal (internal, external, or both)
- The protagonist vs. the antagonist
- The antagonist vs. mercy (or the appearance of it)
- The plot should force the protagonist to directly face almost everything they’ve spent their entire lives avoiding.
- This doesn’t mean it has to be huge, since we tend to hate small conflicts more than large ones.
- Most of the plot should involve the character trying to circle around the problem and, as a consequence, making it worse.
Many story elements give the reader promises and expectations:
- A genre promises the audience what sort of time, place, actions, and types of characters they’ll see.
- Themes promise you’ll deliver a message through that theme by the end.
- The main character’s natural attributes give them both weaknesses and strengths, which imply what the story involves and how the character will likely change.
- Drawing attention to any details imply they’ll be important later.
- While you can surprise the reader, never break the promise of giving something to them.
When building the story, start where you want the story to end, then work backward:
- The surprise ending should not surprise you as you write it.
- The only way to make a surprise ending that doesn’t irritate the reader is through withholding specific facts earlier in the story.
Use your personal experience, especially about work you’ve performed.
Start at the moment the action is about to start:
- You can start earlier, but it’ll bore the reader.
- Starting in the action may be exciting, but it’s risky because you’ll often confuse the reader.
- Use an establishing experience to rapidly develop the character and the world all at once (e.g., saving a cat, attacking an armed robber).
Use the Snowflake Method to flesh out story details:
- Write out an idea, then keep expanding that idea until it eventually grows to the size you want.
- Even for short stories, the Snowflake Method still works by not expanding as much.
A. Write one sentence that summarizes the story:
- It may seem excessive, but spend about an hour making this sentence.
- Up to 15 words.
- Avoid character names.
- Write what the character wishes to lose or gain.
- If it’s a love story, ask what would stop the two characters.
B. Expand the sentence to a paragraph:
- It will take another hour to expand the one-sentence idea into a paragraph.
- It should describe the story setup, 3 major disasters, and an ending.
- Unlikely events are great (and often entertaining) for bad things to happen, but unlikely events shouldn’t drive opportunities.
- The 3 disasters will correspond to Act 1’s End, Act 2’s Middle, and Act 2’s End.
- The protagonist’s 2nd and 3rd disasters should be their attempt to “fix” things.
- The back-cover copy will summarize the first 1/4 of the story, but this paragraph will summarize the whole story.
C. Write a one-page summary sheet for each character:
- This will take another hour.
- Include overall details:
- A one-sentence summary of their storyline
- Their motivation (what they abstractly want)
- Their conflict (what’s preventing them from reaching their goal)
- Their epiphany (what they will learn and how they will change)
- Add a one-paragraph expanded summary of their storyline.
- You will likely need to revise your one-sentence summary in light of your character’s development.
All you have to do is make things “good enough”, not perfect, and then revise later as needed.
- You will likely need to revise your one-sentence summary in light of your character’s development.
D. Expand each sentence of the summary paragraph into a full paragraph:
- Take as long as you need.
- This will become a one-page skeleton of a novel.
- Every paragraph except the last should end in a disaster.
- The last paragraph should say how the book ends.
E. Write a one-page description of each major character:
- Take a day or two to flesh out each character, and consult the above character questionnaire.
- It should tell the story from the point of view of each character.
- As you discover necessary changes, make revisions as needed to previous steps.
F. Expand the one-page synopsis of the novel to a four-page summary:
- It should take about a week to expand it.
- Expand each paragraph into a full page.
G. Expand character descriptions into full character charts:
- These charts should detail everything about the character (birthdate, description, history, motivation, goal, etc.)
- Revise previous steps as needed.
H. List all the scenes:
- There could be over 100, so use a spreadsheet to keep yourself organized.
- For every scene, ask what values, if any, any characters have changed.
- If nothing has changed, throw out that scene or merge the world-building into another scene.
- Ask why that scene is there, and if you can’t answer you’ve been building something that may drag down the story’s pace.
- Pay close attention to the first and last scenes, since they’re the most important to the audience.
- The last scene must leave people thinking and pondering on it, and it frames and affects the rest of the story.
I. Finally, type out the story’s first draft:
- Even when the you’re several drafts in and it’s still a mess, you can keep reworking it until you get it right.
- You will probably work through 10-15 drafts by the time you’re done.
As you go, add details to the world you’re crafting:
- Only include details that make your world memorable and merge neatly into the story.
- Sensory details will bog down the pace of the story, and side discussions must be entertaining or contribute directly to the story.
- If you really want to elaborate more details about the world and don’t like removing it because it still feels necessary (e.g., fantasy, science fiction), organize it into a separate body of work that may become a reference book later.
End the story abruptly:
- It’s tempting to stay to discuss everything in an epilogue or sentimentally wind down of the rest of the story, but you’re diluting the message.
- Give as few details about the end as possible that show the story is over, and let the reader’s imagination run with the rest.
Dialogue and action
Every phrase or line of dialogue must either change behavior or set up conditions for a change in the story:
- Only communicate body language and dialogue the reader doesn’t know.
- Most nouns and verbs have built-in adjectives and adverbs, so don’t slow the pace with redundant information.
- e.g., “He smiled pleasantly” is boring, but “He smiled coldly” adds complexity.
- e.g., “The strong welder” is predictable, but not “The joyful welder”.
- Evoke feelings, but don’t tell the reader how they should feel.
- Readers automatically slip into the protagonist’s frame of reference and see the world through their perception.
- You shift “perspective” every time another character speaks or you make an explanation, and you should do this frequently to keep the story at an interesting pace.
Use outer behavior to demonstrate the character’s conflicts, then move to their thoughts for more private desires:
- Use active verbs that explicitly clarify how someone did something, not just that they did it.
Either use “said” plainly, cut it out and use quotes as paragraphs by themselves, or use one of the many alternatives:
- Accepted, Accused, Acknowledged, Addressed, Admitted, Advertised, Advised, Affirmed, Agonized, Agreed, Alleged, Announced, Answered, Appealed, Arranged, Articulated, Asked, Asserted, Asseverated, Assumed, Assured, Attracted, Avered, Avowed
- Babbled, Barked, Bawled, Beamed, Beckoned, Began, Begged, Bellowed, Beseeched, Blubbered, Blurted, Bossed, Bragged, Breathed, Broadcasted, Burst
- Cajoled, Called, Carped, Cautioned, Censured, Cheered, Chimed in, Choked, Chortled, Chuckled, Circulated, Claimed, Comforted, Commented, Conceded, Concluded, Concurred, Condemned, Conferred, Confessed, Confided, Confirmed, Consoled, Contended, Continued, Cried out, Criticized, Croaked, Crooned, Crowed
- Declared, Decided, Defended, Demanded, Denoted, Dictated, Disclosed, Disposed, Disseminated, Distributed, Divulged, Doubted, Drawled
- Echoed, Emitted, Empathized, Encouraged, Ended, Entreated, Exacted, Exclaimed
- Faltered, Finished, Fretted, Fumed
- Gawped, Giggled, Glowered, Grieved, Grinned, Groaned, Growled, Grumbled, Grunted, Guessed
- Held, Hesitated, Hinted, Hissed, Hollered, Howled, Hypothesized
- Imparted, Imitated, Implied, Implored, Importuned, Inclined, Indicated, Informed, Inquired, Insisted, Interjected, Invited
- Jabbered, Jested, Joked, Justified
- Lamented, Laughed, Leered, Lied, Lilted
- Maintained, Made known, Made public, Marked, Mewled, Mimicked, Moaned, Mocked, Mourned, Mumbled, Murmured, Mused
- Nagged, Necessitated, Noted
- Observed, Offered, Ordered
- Panted, Passed on, Pleaded, Pointed out, Pondered, Postulated, Praised, Preached, Premised, Presented, Presupposed, Probed, Proclaimed, Prodded, Professed, Proffered, Promised, Promulgated, Proposed, Protested, Provoked, Publicized, Published, Puled, Put forth, Put out
- Quaked, Queried, Questioned, Quipped, Quavered, Quizzed, Quoted
- Reassured, Raged, Ranted, Reckoned that, Rejoiced, Rejoined, Released, Remarked, Remonstrated, Repeated, Replied, Reported, Reprimanded, Requested, Required, Requisitioned, Retorted, Revealed, Roared
- Said, Sang, Scoffed, Scolded, Screamed, Seethed, Sent on, Settled, Shared, Shouted, Shrieked, Shrugged, Shuddered, Snapped, Snarled, Sniffled, Sniveled, Snorted, Sobbed, Solicited, Sought, Specified, Speculated, Spluttered, Spread, Squeaked, Stammered, Stated, Stuttered, Stressed, Suggested, Supposed, Swore
- Taunted, Teased, Testified, Thundered, Ticked off, Told, Told off, Touted, Trailed off, Transferred, Transmitted, Trembled, Trilled, Trumpeted
- Understood, Undertook, Upbraided, Urged, Uttered
- Verified, Vociferated, Voiced, Volunteered, Vouched for
- Wailed, Wanted, Warned, Wept, Went on, Wheedled, Whimpered, Whined, Whispered, Wondered
- Yawped, Yelled, Yelped, Yowled
Sending emails and text messages
For many, email is the most ubiquitous form of communication.
Brevity, while important in other writing, is critical in email:
- People get bombarded with emails, so brief statements make their lives easier.
- Fully summarize the purpose of the email on the Subject line.
- Many people use email inboxes for productivity, so only deliver one purpose with 1-2 points per email.
Avoid crucial mistakes:
- Attach any files as soon as you start the email.
- To avoid accidentally sending, don’t enter the recipients until after you’ve edited.
- Don’t send anything in an email you wouldn’t say to them in-person.
Closely consider who should be on the “To”, “Cc”, and “Bcc” lines when selecting “Reply All”:
- “To” recipients should respond in some way.
- “carbon copy” recipients don’t need to do anything, but they should be informed of your message.
- “Blind carbon copy” is only useful to privately send a copy of a message to someone without anyone else knowing.
You can avoid many emails with a quick phone call or off-hand comment at a meeting.
Your greeting should match cultural expectations:
- “Hello” – first-time professional greeting only
- “Hi” – strangers, professional contacts, and non-professional introductions
- “Hey” – familiar professional contacts, loose acquaintances
- No greeting – closer friends
Carefully choose your words to create the right tone:
- Barring unusual circumstances, limit emails to 5 sentences and 150 words.
- Most people read emails on mobile devices, so lengthy emails are daunting.
- If you’re ever vague, you’ll confuse people and create more emails.
- Emotions will be misunderstood in an email’s limited context, so don’t express them.
- Keep the tone respectful and courteous.
- Avoid using text message language (e.g., LOL, JK, BRB).
- To say something is funny, simply say “that’s funny!”
- If the email needs explaining or any of the above rules feel inappropriate for your message, make a phone call or write a letter instead.
Break out ideas with spacing and bullets.
If the conversation grows too long, start a new email with a new subject line.
Since it’s a summary of your email, take extra time to craft the subject line.
Conclude with a clear “call to action” about what they should do with your information.
To make people important, always respond promptly to their emails.
Don’t over-assert yourself with messages to strangers:
- Only ask for advice with guided questions, and never ask for direct feedback.
- Ask if they know a good source of insight on a topic, but never ask them to introduce you to specific people in their networks.
- Don’t request a phone call or an in-person meeting within the next few days.
- Since you’re requesting, you must be more flexible to their needs.
- Don’t name times for a meeting.
Watch for uneven power dynamics in messages and adapt accordingly:
- One person is making typographical errors, skipping punctuation, or ignoring capital letters while the other doesn’t.
- One person takes a while to reply while the other doesn’t.
- Reply quickly and relatively infrequently.
- If you need more time to reply, send a quick reply that you’ll get back to them.
- One person is responding to long, well-written messages with much shorter responses.
- The ideal length of a message varies on its industry and context.
Use email technology efficiently:
- Always spell-check and review everything before you send.
- Use a “delay send” or “scheduled send” to deliver a message at a more appropriate time.
- Consider their time zone and likely sleep cycle when choosing a time.
- Your email address and email signature should convey the image you want.
- Since they annoy the recipients and make you seem like you have trust issues, avoid electronic return receipts.
Online chats require writing skills as well:
- Even when you’re writing off-the-cuff, your messages carry implications.
- When greeting, say “hello”, but follow with your question or idea.
- Otherwise, they’ll have to respond with “hello” back, which may add upwards of days or weeks before the conversation moves forward.
- Generally, only use emojis and icons to enhance an existing statement you’re making.
- Make sure the recipient will understand your meme or cultural reference.
Make great web content
The Internet’s format gives an unlimited range of expression and scope:
- Outside of giving what the reader wants, don’t presume you must abide by any conventions or standards regarding formatting or style.
- Learning a little HTML will go a long way to improving your content.
If you use a mailing list, only deliver relevant content to the readers:
- The subject line shouldn’t require clicking to find out the content: include a brief summary of the email content or summarize the key information.
- Use HTML to improve its aesthetic, but make sure it still looks decent if the formatting fails.
- Direct the hyperlinks clearly to the main content page (instead of through email shorteners or referral pages).
- Make a clearly legible “unsubscribe” link at the bottom.
Your websites’ visual appearance and variety is often as important as your content:
- Separate ideas and sub-ideas with variously-sized headers.
- Separate thoughts with blank spaces and horizontal dividers.
- Illustrate points with pictures and graphics.
- If you’re visually artistic, insert animations and interactive diagrams.
- Vary the lengths of the posts, from snippets to gigantic.
- Make long articles easy to read.
- Vary paragraph length and space between paragraphs to clearly distinguish them.
- Create a multiple-part series for extremely long posts.
- Ask readers questions, then answer them.
Write with long-term goals in mind:
- A blog or web page is a semi-permanent archive.
- Since it can stay live for decades, fact-check more thoroughly than a book or email.
Post consistently, but don’t blog every day because you’ll burnout and bore your readers.
Avoid over-optimizing for search engines:
- Search engine algorithms are continually improving and mind-numbingly advanced.
- Overusing keywords will disrupt the post’s flow and increase the bounce rate, which harms your ranking with the algorithm.
- Instead, self-promote whenever possible:
- Create email lists to personally connect with people.
- Learn marketing skills to generate attention.
Set low expectations for the published draft:
- You can usually fix web content later without any problems.
- As long as the spirit of the idea is the same, or you’ve placed a link to the new content, nobody will have any problems with the change.
Constantly edit and re-edit:
- Most of the writing process is editing, not drafting.
- Since everyone uses a computer, typographical and simple grammatical errors in any published work are almost never acceptable.
Catch errors by converting the text to speech:
Whether it’s a website or a text message, your most meaningful feedback comes from others’ review of your work:
- Writing itself is solitary, but your easiest success editing comes from other people.
- If you must self-edit, read your final draft after enough time has passed that the text is no longer familiar.
- Find people willing to openly criticize your writing and nitpick your style.
- Your friends, family, and spouse are great for reviewing, but don’t ask them to review your content more than they want.
Since you’ll lose the idea if you don’t finish what you start, publish with a deadline.
Avoid writer’s block by fostering healthy creative habits.
You’ll always need at least a few drafts:
- Most professional content goes through at least a dozen drafts.
- The first draft will push the raw ideas out, likely with only spell-checking.
- The second draft onward will work on grammar and tone, with many removals and rearranging.
- The third draft onward is almost exclusively removing, splicing, and rearranging ideas.
You’ll only see major themes in your work forming after you’re reviewing your first draft:
- Themes portray your beliefs about human nature, and are reflected in how characters and elements interact with one another.
- The connected nature of your theme determines the power of what you’re trying to advance.
- Themes tend to address 2 major questions:
- What does it mean to be human?
- How do humans react to circumstances beyond their control?
- Your theme will dictate what the readers think about after they’ve stopped reading.
- While nonfiction is easier because you’re stating it explicitly, themes only work in stories from how characters change.
- To make the heaviest impact, leave them with 1 theme, and no more.
If you absolutely must pad out printed pages:
- Increase the font size or character/paragraph spacing.
- State obvious observations and clarify easy-to-understand concepts to broaden the word count and elaborate the ideas.
- The quality of the writing will suffer, so only do it if you don’t care.
- If you do care, consider changing your novel to a novella or your book to an essay.
Writing is an art
Like any art, writing has rules, exceptions to rules, specific cases for everything, and requires constant criticism.
As the situation demands, you can (and will) break most writing rules, so don’t obsess about honoring all of them:
- The purpose of writing is to communicate a clear concept, so violating rules may be useful to prove a point or entertain.
You may strive for originality, but it’s never completely possible.
If you keep improving, you’ll likely find years later that you’ll hate your old writing style.
To learn much more detail about good writing, go to the Plain English Campaign.